Have you seen the movie Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey's flim bio of singer Bobby Darin? Probably not; not very many people did. We caught it last night at one of the budget theaters.
It says something about the state of Hollywood that this movie wasn't a big success; it obviously skews to the wrong demographic. The theater we were in last night was reasonably full for a Sunday night, and we were probably two of the youngest people there. It wasn't a perfect movie, certainly, but it shows how adult audiences are being consistently squeezed out of the theater viewing audience.
Spacey's credentials as an actor are well-known; with two Academy Awards on his mantle, as well as many successful performances, we all know the man can act. In Beyond the Sea he adds the hats of director and writer, with mixed results.
Spacey's directing style was, I thought, creative. At 45, he's already older than Darin was at the time of his death, and quite a few critics had knocked Spacey for trying to portray the younger man. He attacked the age issue head-on, framing the story in the context of Darin playing himself in a movie about his own life, even having one character accuse him of being "too old" to play the role. In so doing, Spacey provides a plausible explanation for his character always being the same age throughout the film, and saves us from those painful flashback scenes where an actor is obviously made up to look twenty years younger than he actually is.
Spacey/Darin is accompanied on much of his retrospective journey by William Ullrich, who plays Darin the child but also has some knowledge of what happens to Darin the adult. Their conversations are one of the highlights of the movie, with the two of them occasionally discussing the best way to tell the story.
One of the most controversial aspects of the film was Spacey's decision to sing Darin's songs himself; I've heard that the Darin family was originally skeptical about this but relented after hearing Spacey's renditions. For the most part this works; Spacey, a gifted mimic, chooses to copy Darin's style rather than imitate it as an impressionist might. He doesn't quite sound like Darin, nor does he quite look like him, but the overall effect works. His vocal and physical gestures, along with the big band arrangements, all work to allow the viewer to believe that Spacey, if not actually Darin, is supposed to be Darin. Suspension of disbelief is what the movies are all about, after all; the least effective movies are the ones where that suspension fails. It helps as well that Spacey's a pretty good singer on his own.
This is anything but a traditional biopic; with its big production numbers and dancing montages, it never lets you forget you're watching a movie. It's far from a frothy gloss, however. Darin, living in the shadow of death for his entire life (thanks to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever), is obsessed with moving forward, with outdoing Sinatra, with having it all - singing at the Copa, making hit records (and winning Grammys), starring in movies (and being nominated for an Oscar), and snagging for himself a movie-star wife in Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth). He knows he's destined for an early death, and lives his life like a fish that has to stay moving in order to stay living.
The movie features fine supporting performances by John Goodman, Bob Hoskins and Brenda Blethyn, but it's Spacey's portrayl that's going to carry the film, for good or ill. Because of his decision to portray Darin as looking back on the story of his life from a fixed point, we don't experience the passage of time through Darin's aging; the changes, such as they are, are conveyed in other ways, through styles in clothes and music, through newspaper headlines. Darin's career faded in the 60s; partly, according to Spacey, because Darin made a commitment to spending more time with his family in an attempt to save his marriage. It was also true, however, that the times were changing, and Darin's brand of pop music was being pushed out by groups like the Beatles and the Stones. Darin became a passionate crusader against the Vietnam War; his attempt to become "relevant" by growing a mustache, getting rid of his hairpiece, wearing hip clothes, and singing protest songs, is one of the poignant moments of the story. It is only when Dee reminds him that "the audience hears what they see" that he realizes what he must do: he has to go back to the old Darin, clean-shaven, dressed in tuxedo and wearing his toupee; in order for them to accept "Simple Song of Freedom," he's also going to have to give them "Mack the Knife" and "Splish Splach."
And herein lies perhaps the most intriguing part of the movie. Bobby Darin learned that artistic freedom has a price; the entertainer has a certain obligation to give his fans what they want. Clint Eastwood learned that lesson a long time ago, giving his fans another Dirty Harry-style movie every so often in order to finance a Bird or White Hunter, Black Heart, with the result that now he can make pretty much anything he wants. Mel Gibson uses the box-office clout from Lethal Weapon sequels to produce Braveheart and Passion of the Christ.
Kevin Spacey, on the other hand, hasn't had a box-office smash in some time (remember The Life of David Gale, The Shipping News, or K-PAX?). He hasn't really had a big success since American Beauty. While some of his recent movies might be called art-house or small pictures, the fact is that a lot of them just weren't very good. Instead of being entertaining, they've concentrated on trying to present some kind of a message. This was evident even in Beyond the Sea; you got the distinct impression that Spacey was trying to say something by emphasizing the "We don't want a war" lyric from "Simple Song of Freedom," a moment that wasn't lost on the audience watching the movie in the theater. Spacey makes no secret of his liberal politics, and some of his movies could be considered message pictures; the audience has sent him a message in return, that they weren't interested. As for a popular movie from Spacey? Well, let's just say it's been a while. It's ironic that Spacey, who seems to capture the essence of this dilemma in Bobby Darin's career, fails to recognize it in his own.
I like Kevin Spacey as an actor; I have the feeling I might like him if I were his next-door neighbor. I don't like his politics though, and to the extent that he presses them on me, I don't like that either. By all accounts, Beyond the Sea was a labor of love for Spacey, a movie that he'd been wanting to do for years. It was a movie that deserved better than it got; perhaps Kevin Spacey just hasn't yet learned the lesson that Bobby Darin learned, that sometimes in order to do what you really want, you have to give the audience something in return first.